Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are gearing up to take a broad swipe at officials who have had a role in maintaining COVID-19 pandemic protections, from school boards that passed mask mandates to a prosecutor who has pledged not to enforce the governor’s order letting parents exempt their students from classroom mask wearing.
Wednesday’s special session kicked off the third time lawmakers call themselves into action in Tennessee history without the governor. Democrats have blasted the COVID-19 session as politically motivated and dangerous for public health.
The session will have a starkly different tone than last week, when GOP Gov. Bill Lee brought lawmakers back for overwhelming bipartisan votes for economic incentives and oversight plans related to a massive Ford electric truck and battery project coming to West Tennessee.
Republican legislative leaders are keeping the topics in play broad and have not promised what will pass.
They have indicated they could even try to circumvent elected district attorneys if they publicly decline to enforce certain laws — a national trend by progressive prosecutors that Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk has carried out on multiple hot-button policies that target abortion rights, transgender people, mask requirements in schools and small marijuana possession cases.
President Joe Biden’s administration is likely the main target during session, even though his workplace vaccine order trumps state government’s authority. Six, large independent county health departments could see a change to the additional autonomy they have over pandemic precautions, and the governor could yield some of his emergency powers to oversight from lawmakers.
School board members, who at times have drawn conservatives’ ire by implementing mask mandates in classrooms, could be required to declare a party affiliation to run for office, or mask mandates in schools could be banned.
And businesses who require vaccines for employees or customers could be made liable for “harm or injury” from employees taking a vaccine, workers fired for refusing could be assured they can receive unemployment, and lawmakers could potentially bar vaccination as a condition of employment.